The three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared on Tuesday that the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to postpone the Punjab Assembly elections until October 8, 2023, was “unconstitutional” and “illegal.” The bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justices Munib Akhtar and Ijazul Ahsan, announced that general elections in the province would be held on May 14, 2023.
The PTI had filed a petition challenging the ECP’s decision to delay the polls. During the week-long hearings, two judges of the original five-member bench recused themselves from hearing the case. Afterward, the chief justice constituted a bench comprising himself, Justice Ahsan, and Justice Akhtar to proceed with the petition.
The bench ordered returning officers to accept nomination papers until April 10, 2023, and publish the candidates’ list by April 19, 2023. The ruling further held that free and fair elections must be ensured on the new poll date. The government has been directed by the court to release funds of Rs21 billion for polls by April 10, 2023, and the judge stated that the court would issue appropriate orders should the government fail to comply.
Earlier in the day, the Ministry of Defence, as per the apex court’s directives, had submitted its report detailing the availability of security personnel for election duties through the Attorney General of Pakistan Mansoor Awan. After analyzing the report, the Supreme Court announced its verdict and reinstated the previous schedule with amendments.
The SC bench appeared irked by the government declaring “no-confidence” in it during the proceedings. The ruling parties’ lawyers were not allowed to present their arguments before the court reserved the verdict. PML-N lawyer Akram Sheikh stated that he had appeared before the Supreme Court to assist it, adding that he had the utmost respect for the apex court. However, the chief justice observed that while judicial proceedings were made public, consultations among judges were considered internal matters.
Addressing the National Assembly a day earlier, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar warned that the government would not accept if the top court delivered its verdict on a sensitive and important issue in haste. He also asked President Arif Alvi to sign the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill 2023, which aims to curtail the suo motu powers of the office of the chief justice of Pakistan.
The decision is significant, given that it comes just days after the Senate passed a bill that aimed to curtail the powers of the chief justice of Pakistan. The Supreme Court’s verdict reaffirms its role as the guardian of the Constitution and the impartial arbiter of disputes, especially those relating to elections. The ruling also underscores the importance of conducting free and fair elections, which are crucial for the stability and democratic functioning of the country.